Broken English | Review

Classic Albums Marianne Faithfull

Marianne Faithfull ‘Broken English’ 1979

It’s timely that I pen this review on International Women’s Day, to recognize a women who transformed from a ‘60s pop ingénue to the worldly and enigmatic performer of her latter years.

Marianne Faithfull, English born singer, songwriter and actress, now celebrating 50 years in the biz, has been an icon for the women’s movement. Her struggle, courage and sheer resilience via a very chequered career, should be an inspiration to all women.

We won’t be touching too much on Marianne’s tough times - and there were quite a few of those, as she candidly wrote in her 1994 autobiography ‘Faithfull’ – but looking at her 1979 release ‘Broken English’ which still stands as her definitive comeback recording.

My first recollection of Marianne Faithfull was when she accompanied her then boyfriend Mick Jagger to Australia when he was filming Ned Kelly. Marianne had ended up in a Sydney hospital, and as controversy attracts the media‘s attention, a photographer dressed as a surgeon attempted to get her photo - hardly ethical, but never a dull moment in the fabulous '60s.

Onto her music, Marianne’s commercial foray thus far had been a hit with the Stones’ ‘As Tears Go By‘, which had reached the top of the British charts in the early '60s. Most of the '70s for Faithfull were consumed by various addictions, which she owes a few miracles to have survived.

The title track opening the album punches out a solid bass riff with incidental synthesizer like sound effects from a spooky movie. Does the chorus sound familiar? ‘What are we fighting for’ was an ode to terrorism in Europe at the time.

The pace slows for ‘Witches Song’, a melodic ballad. The change in Faithfull’s vocal range quite evident here when she attempts some high notes. She seems to crack and warble then settle back to an acceptable pitch. The years of illness and hard living give Faithfull’s vocals a greater depth and ‘gravitas’. The Witches Song rambles on with a lazy acoustic strumming and some mysterious howling noises towards the end.

Next is ‘Brain Drain‘, written by her then husband Ben Brierly. Ben was from the punk band the Vibrators but it’s nothing like the Vibrators would feature in their repertoire. An underlying guitar pattern duos with Marianne’s hypnotic vocals. Is that a drum machine I hear?

Closing side One ‘Guilty‘ laments in a slightly funky bass and keyboards style a la Stevie Wonder. Could that be Steve Winwood soloing at the end?

It’s probably the first outing by Faithfull (even though it’s her 7th studio album) where her backing instrumentation was elevated to this standard. It was smart and sophisticated showcasing Faithfull in an entirely new light. Gone was the Lulu image of the '60s, replaced by a confident songstress determined to make up for lost years.

Contributing musicians weave an intricate backing. If sometimes underwhelming, it’s a solid accompaniment to Faithfull’s powerful vocals.

Side two kicks off with the ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’, written by poet Shel Silverstein and recorded by Dr Hook. A repeating keyboard riff dominates. Could this song have been chosen to be autobiographical? Whatever the reason, it was a successful single off Broken English. A story of a middle aged woman house bound by children and a working husband. The chorus cries:

‘At the age of thirty seven
she realized she'd never ride
through Paris in a sports car
with the warm wind in her hair'

Next is ‘What’s the Hurry‘, another catchy tune penned by guitarist Joe Maverty. Once again the Dr Who synthesizer and drum machine make it sound irrevocably from 80’s,

A dramatic rendition then of John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero‘ picks up the tempo as Faithfull builds the momentum with every verse, and the fluttering synthesizers complimenting the solid bassline. A standout of the album’s eight tracks.

The Closing ‘Why d’ya Do It‘ is the album’s longest track and easily the climactic finale. Starting with a chord riff that could be straight from the Stones, it’s almost a reggae structure that is insistent in the background. Marianne lets it rip with lyrics that are ribald and explicit, yet in the context of this song are credible rather than just sung for shock value. A damn fine guitar solo by Joe Mavety is featured at the end.

Musicians included co-writer Barry Reynolds, also on guitars, bassist Steve York, keyboards Steve Winwood and violinist Daryl Way from Wolf. Maurice Pert, Jim Cuomo, Frankie Collins, Guy Humphries and Diane Birch were all from Faithfull’s touring band at the time.

A struggling (wannabe) producer Mark Miller Mundy was enlisted to guide Faithfull. It was a gamble since Marianne at that stage lacked any credibility as a rock singer and performer.

Mundy’s collaborative ideas took Faithfull from the folk-pop idiom and the result was a fusion of music and a groundbreaking album which somehow positioned Faithfull into the punk/rock mainstream.

The Accolades for Broken English at the time were legendary and the album has grown in stature since. Broken English was a milestone and a lifeline in Faithfull’s career. And Marianne, at the time, desperately needed a lifeline.

Harry Steilus

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